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Notes

Mistakes: We’re Making More Than A Few #

There is a reason baseball players go to spring training.

There is a reason musicians practice scales.

There is a reason experienced pilots use checklists before takeoff.

To avoid making mistakes, skills must be honed and seemingly routine steps must be repeated over and over again.

It’s the same for us.

If your report contains a name, a number, a location, a date, an age, a historical reference — basically anything that “walks or talks or acts like a fact,” as Margaret Low Smith would say — it must be checked and double-checked before being broadcast or published.

We went over this last November in a note headlined “We Get So Many Things Right; Why Do We Get Some Things Wrong?

But a flurry of errors this month, which you can read about on the corrections page, means it’s time for a reminder:

Double-down on fact-checking. We’ve gotten names, dates, numbers, historical “facts,” locations and other basic details wrong in recent days. For the most part, the errors were not made during live broadcasts. They came during pieces and posts that weren’t done on deadline. There was time for fact-checking.

Use a checklist. It’s a valuable tool. There is a classic one for reporters and editors here.

NPR has broadcast and posted some great stories so far this month. We all make mistakes. Let’s do what we can to limit them so that the wonderful work isn’t diminished.

(Memmos; Jan. 14, 2015)

Key questions

Consider using an accuracy checklist. #

(Update on Jan. 29, 2015: The NPR Accuracy Checklist and a “memmo” about why it’s important are now posted here.)

Before our reporting reaches the public, we check “everything that walks or talks or acts like a fact.”1 While it may seem elementary, a simple checklist can be a powerful tool to make sure we haven’t made any oversights. Here’s a set of questions to ask before you call any story complete:

  • Is every name and title correctly spelled? (And, in the case of radio, correctly pronounced according to either the subject himself or someone else with direct knowledge of how to say it?)
  • Are the quotes accurate and properly attributed?
  • Have I reviewed my spelling and grammar? (Special note: yes, it’s important for NPR journalists to spell names, places and other key facts accurately in their radio scripts because those details end up in our Web reports.)
  • Is every number and calculation correct? (Related tip: triple-check any references to millions, billions or trillions; confusing them is one of the most common mistakes made. Also: triple-check your references to percentages to ensure that you shouldn’t be saying “percentage points” instead. If you’re not sure which you should use, ask one of the reporters or editors who cover business and the economy or someone from the Planet Money team.)
  • Are all the terms being used correctly? For example, was the suspect really “arrested” or is he only being questioned?
  • Does every fact in the story match the information with any photos or graphics associated with it? (Special note: again, it’s important for NPR journalists who are primarily reporting for radio to check their pieces against such material.)
  • Do I need to check a source’s “fact” against what others are saying? Advocates can skew things in their favor.
  • Is the story fair? Read or listen one more time. Try to come to it as if you were a listener or reader, not the reporter, editor or producer.
  • Does it hang together? Our conclusions are supported by facts. We pause before broadcast or publication to ask if we have answered all the questions that can be answered. If important questions can’t be resolved, we make sure our listeners and readers know what they are.

Examples of checklists for journalists are easy to find. Craig Silverman, the man behind Regret the Error, has some links here. 

  1. Source: Margaret Low Smith. []